Pseudo-Synonyms: Words that seem like they should be, but aren’t quite, the same

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I thought the same thing too at first.

I love words. I love their meanings and how they sound. I love investigating their origins. But more than anything else, I love using them. And I love playing with them. That’s why I’m a writer.

But they mystify me sometimes. And synonyms (words with similar or related meanings such as shut and close) are sometimes the most confusing to me. Why do we need so many different ways of saying the same thing? It begs the question is there really such a thing as a true synonym. And then there are the words that seem to be synonyms but, in reality, are not.

Defensible vs. Defendable

We live in an area of Arizona that gets wildfires from time to time. Thankfully, the one that killed all those hotshots was not close to our home. Though it did threaten many of our friends and their horses.

We did have one wildfire that required us to be ready to evacuate. I got some good footage of borate bombers dropping retardant on the flames from the back deck of our house. It was a fairly tense few days.

We didn’t have to evacuate, which was a blessing.

After both of these fires, the signs that are always present, but mostly ignored, got a cleaning, replacing or upgrading as necessary. The signs say simply:  Create defensible space. I’ve always wondered why they don’t say “defendable” instead.

Image result for create defensible space signs

So what is the difference between defensible and defendable? Turns out it’s fairly subtle.

Defensible is generally defined this way:  able to be protected as in “a fort with a defensible yard at its feet.”

Defendable is generally defined thus:  capable of being defended against armed attack.

But if you look them up together in a search for how they differ, you get: “As adjectives the difference between defendable and defensible is that defendable is capable of being defended while defensible is (of an installation etc.) capable of being defended against armed attack.” (From Which would seem to be something of the opposite of when you look them up separately.

But I think the most important thing to consider is the word “installation.” So a sign that cautions you to “Create defensible space” (the assumption is around your house or property) is more correct than if it used “defendable” instead. And I would have to guess that a moral position would be defendable but not defensible.

Still, I think it would be a serious case of nit picking to call someone out for using them interchangeably. Hopefully, I’m not quite that anal. Though if you asked my husband, he might have a different take on it.

Affect vs. Effect

Over the years, these two words have given me more trouble than just about any other two words that seem the same. And it doesn’t help that they sound similarly. Often when someone is speaking one word or the other, I am not certain which one they really mean.

I find it helps to think of them this way. Affect is a verb as in “have an effect upon” or “make a difference to” or “move emotionally.”

Effect is a noun and generally means a change that is a result of an action. Think of special effects in a movie if that helps. Or consider this sentence, “Most prescription medications have side effects that affect about one third of the general population.”

But I find that calling the one a verb and the other a noun is about all I need to keep me straight on the usage. Usually. But not always. I can be stubborn with my misconceptions. Luckily I have Microsoft Word to come to my rescue.

Lie vs. Lay

This one gave me fits for years. Still does to some extent. So many people say lay when what they really mean is lie. I cringe every time. I know. I should relax a little. After all, language and words are defined by usage and usage changes over time. Consider the word “fuck.”

There was a time in the history of the English language (although the word is probably Germanic in origin) that this was an acceptable way of referring to sexual intercourse. Over time, it fell out of favor and then became more or less completely unacceptable for use in polite society. It was actually outlawed in print in England by the Obscene Publications Act, 1857, and in the U.S. by the Comstock Act, 1873. The word continued in common speech, however.

It stayed that way for a very long time. But the legal barriers against its use in print began to break down in the mid twentieth century. It seems to me that recently, it is being used more and more. Who knows, maybe one day it will again be a perfectly acceptable way to refer to the sexual act.

So where was I? Oh yes, lie and lay.

My dog, Maddie, and I might like to lie down for a nap, but I will first have to lay her down in her bed. I will not lay down for a nap, but as in the prayer, I might “lay me down to sleep.” It seems to be all about the action involved. Is something doing it or are you doing it to something? It can be very confusing. And then there is flatness and surface to be considered.

I got this definition of the difference from  Lay means “to place something down flat,” while lie means “to be in a flat position on a surface.” The key difference is that lay is transitive and requires an object to act upon, and lie is intransitive, describing something moving on its own or already in position.

So, is a book lying (already in position) on a table or is it laying on a table? From the book’s perspective (if it had one), I guess it is lying. But from my perspective it would be laying. Ack!

That’s about as clear as mud. I like my way of looking at it better. So having straightened out (or have I really?) when to use one or the other, there is still the problem of conjugating them. The present tense of lie is lie, past is lay, present participle is lying, and the past participle is lain. But I have to tell you, saying something like “Yesterday, I lay down for a nap at 1:00 p.m.” just sounds weird. My mouth wants to say laid instead of lay really badly.

The past tense of lay is laid. More often than not, my husband will ask me where he left something. I might say something like: “An hour ago you laid it on the table, but that’s only where I saw you lay it last. It might not still be there now. Why don’t you just look for it?” But I wonder about that first sentence and more often than not, because I’m often just too unsure to commit myself to possibly saying something incorrectly, I might just say, “An hour ago you put it on the table, but that’s only where I saw you put it last.” End of problem.

The word put seems to be its own past tense, which sort of simplifies things. And while it can stand in for lay fairly well, I can’t see it standing in for lie. Oh wait a minute, I don’t think I’d ever want to say, “I’d like to lie down for a nap, but first I have to put Maddie down in her bed.” So I guess we are just stuck with lie and lay and the mess we make of them.

Published by Dianne Lehmann

I'm a writer. But I'm also a wife and a mom to a couple of fur babies. You could call me a cook (but never a chef, I'm not that good) and provisioner as well. Laundress? Yeah. Probably. I design jewelry and I crochet. But mostly I love to write. I love words and how they sound. I love their meanings and origins. I love stringing them together. And of course, I love to read. Thinking about it just now, I realize that what I love most is life and the people around me with a special place set aside for my wonderful husband, our adorable dog and our inscrutable cat. It's the world and the people in it that fuels my writing. So thanks to you all for being the amazing beings that you are.

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